How to Handle School Politics

Teaching at a school is a world away from working at an office. In my experience, teachers have a greater sense of comradery than regular office workers. Teachers are tasked with improving lives rather than making money for the company. Yep, teaching comes with a lot of positives that one cannot find in the traditional office environment. 

Yet even schools suffer from the scourge known as ‘office politics.’ There can be gossip, conflict, scheming and the occasional backstabbing. In this article I’ll use personal examples as a springboard to discuss ways teachers can protect themselves. My hope is that this article will help not only new teachers, but also seasoned teachers who find themselves at a new school. 

Administration 

At the end of the day, the principal is the boss. Yet for most teachers, their contact with the administration is through a vice principal. After all, vice principals are routinely tasked with performing teacher evaluations. Needless to say, teacher evaluations are a common source of friction between teachers and administrators.

It’s important to remember that at the end of the day, administrators are just people. Keep this in mind if a conflict should arise. Here are a few other techniques to use in case of a teacher-administrator conflict:

  • Evaluate whether the administrator’s point of view (ex: criticisms about your teaching) is correct.
  • Ask yourself if the administrator’s negative disposition is not due to you, but other factors in his or her job/life.
  • No matter what, maintain a professional demeanor.  

Other Teachers

Here’s a story. After I had taught a year-and-a-half, my school got a new principal. For me, this change was a godsend. Yet for another teacher, the new principal rubbed her the wrong way. I don’t know the details of why the conflict started, but this teacher became openly defiant against the new principal’s wishes. Because she had tenure, and had already made clear her intention to retire at the end of the year, the principal couldn’t touch her.

The teacher in question, overall, was a generally nice person. Also, she had been good to me during my first year of teaching, offering advice when I asked. So when she turned against the new principal, I felt stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Here’s what I took away from this situation:

  • Never say or do anything that indicates you are taking a side in a conflict.
  • Maintain a working relationship with the teacher(s) involved.
  • Alert an administrator if you see the teacher(s) in question involving students in a conflict. Even if you feel like a tattle-tale, involving students is a line that no teacher should cross.

Parents

Here’s another story. So there was a parent that really, really, really didn’t like me. This parent was also the head of the PTA. So about a month into the school year I wrote this parent an email requesting PTA funding for some classroom improvements. This parent sent me a very passive aggressive reply denying me funding not just for the improvements, but for anything else I might need throughout the year.

When it comes to conflicts with parents, it’s important to follow a few steps:

  • Don’t lose your cool. (In my case, after reading the parent’s email, I had to take a LONG walk before responding.)
  • Save all email communication between you and the parent. If there is a phone conversation, take notes on the call that include the date and time.  
  • If you think appeasing the parent would work, try it.
  • If necessary, bring the issue to an administrator’s attention.  

About the last step, it is easy to determine whether or not to involve an administrator. In my case, the parent’s decision had the potential to negatively affect classroom learning. Teachers should know that their school administration may not be able to do anything to resolve the conflict. Even so, when it comes to the welfare of their students, teachers should never be afraid to voice their concerns.   

Students

At the end of the day, the relationships teachers have with their students are the source of the majority of office politics that come up in schools. Conflicts between teachers and students are inventible, but there are ways to reduce their frequency. Here’s a few ideas:

  • Once you set the classroom rules, apply them fairly and consistently. Students are masters at picking up if you enforce one rule one day and don’t the next.
  • Like when interacting with other teachers or administrators, evaluate if a student’s negative mood or actions are due to factors outside your classroom.
  • If discussing negative behaviors with a student, always allow the student to speak first. This strategy is an unspoken sign of respect that should make it easier for you to talk to the student.  

Final Thoughts

These steps are only a few of many ways teacher can avoid (and even prevent) office politics at school. Teaching is challenging enough without office politics, and taking proactive steps will go far in helping you create a positive learning environment for your students.  

Thomas Broderick lives in Northern California. After teaching at an alternative high school for four years, he now works full time as a freelance writer in the educational field.

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